We are struggling to keep our newly drilled seeds alive

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HERE we are in May and no rain to speak of. Whilst it would have been very bad luck indeed for it to rain last Friday after such a long spell (and it was very close), we are now all desperate for some steady rain, as the ground is baked hard with crops and grass growth suffering.

It was the driest April on record, and I have never experienced such dry conditions in April during my farming career.

The May blossom is the best I can remember, and the nightingale has arrived, singing away in the woods outside our house.

The woods are now fully in leaf, with the young soft leaves a light shade of green, especially the oak.

The oak was in leaf well before the ash this year, which means we are only in for a splash.

I would settle for a splash right now, as we are struggling to keep our newly drilled grass seed alive. We are still tanking dirty water to spread over the various fields, hoping to keep it going until the rain, but in these dry conditions, it is a losing battle. The overall position is now getting very serious.

The lawn has slowed down in growth (one blessing) and the garden is now very dry indeed, with the watering can employed on my vegetable patch.

The birds are frantically building nests, darting around at high speed, as the excitement of spring is in full flow.

The cows are much more measured, feeling the heat (in April!), and generally looking for shade under the trees. The young-stock are looking very well, and seem to thrive in this weather, even though the quantity of grass on offer is tightly controlled.

Our hesitation in taking more young heifers to Tillington was absolutely correct as grass growth has slowed down considerably on the sand.

All the maize is now drilled and at Tillington it is up, and quite easy to see the rows in the fields. It needs a drink though, and a good soak would do wonders.

Grass silage making is the next operation, with much discussion as to when we should cut. I hear that the early cuts of Italian ryegrass have been disappointing, and as always it’s a choice between quantity and quality.

The experts tell me that grass is a week ahead, and will flower earlier; at which point the quality falls dramatically.

Then there is the weather; do we cut now, taking advantage of quality grass made in perfect conditions and hope it rains, or will the stubble fry in the hot sun?

n The government announced its long awaited ‘Cost and Responsibility Sharing’ plans on animal disease last week; establishing an Animal Health and Welfare Board.

The government currently spends £330 million annually on animal disease, and whilst we wait to see how much sharing there truly is of the ‘responsibility’, there is no doubt that there is a huge amount of cost transfer on the way.

Most of the cost is likely to affect cattle farmers, and not only do we need to make sure that the proper figures are known, but also scrutinised very carefully in order to make sure that it is more commercial in its cost structure, rather than the huge amounts Governments always seem to spend.

We need guarantees of better border protection, action to get rid of bovine TB which is currently costing a fortune, and a more flexible and efficient approach to the subject of animal disease generally.

The Minister Jim Paice has hailed this as a new way of working. Time will tell of course, but there is no doubt that on the rare occasion when farmers have worked closely with government, very good results have occurred.

Preventing Bluetongue entering the country is a very good example, and the work during Foot and Mouth outbreaks both in 2001 and in 2007 are others. However, I am concerned that the Board is within Defra and not independent, and that Defra officials will interpret and advise the Minister on the Board’s recommendations. It will all hinge on who the Board members are, and of course the Chairman. There is a great deal at stake here.

Looking at what is happening in the Australia dairy industry, I see that there are some similarities.

The number of UK dairy farmers over the past 30 years is down 71 per cent, whereas in Australia numbers have also fallen by 66 per cent Milk production in the UK has fallen by 15 per cent, whereas in Australia milk production doubled between 1980 and 2000, but has fallen by 20 per cent in the last 10 years due to drought.

I see emerging and worrying similarities now taking place in the retail sector as a ‘milk price war’ rages between retailers, with milk prices down to $1 a litre (almost two pints).

This price war is now affecting dairy farmers prices, which are well below where they should be, considering the strength of world markets (just like the UK), hampered also it must be said by the strong Australian dollar.

Much more worrying for my fellow dairy farmers down under is that processors are also very badly squeezed in this price war, and are unable or unwilling to invest if it carries on.

It seems that at the core of this battle, is concern that the Coles / Woolworths duopoly are attempting to wipe out competition from smaller retailers, killing off leading brands such as Aldi, Franklins and Costco, according to analysts.

Coles and Woolworths control 80 per cent of retail between them; with Coles historically underperforming the new management seem determined to reverse this trend at any cost it seems.

Analysts are watching to see how Costco, the massive USA chain develops in Australia, where they act as a membership warehouse, with customers buying in bulk straight from the pallet. Can this war be brought under control?

Australian dairy will suffer if it continues, and they have enough challenges as it is!

Back in the UK it’s been more like Australia as Easter eggs and confectionaries took a real beating by the hot weather as everyone seemed to swap chocolate for a cold beer over the Easter weekend.

Looking at the figures, it seemed that confectionary sales dipped two weeks before Easter as the weather warmed up, and customers bought beer and charcoal instead.

Tesco sold one million bags of charcoal, three and a half million sausages, half a million burgers, and a staggering twelve million bottles and cans of beer over Easter.